Speaking about languages

Speaking about languages means dealing with a specific terminology. How we categorise a plurilingual person based on his/her cultural background, or how we define a (foreign) language, can express inclusion or not, and can provoke positive or negative emotions and memories.

Aims and guiding principles

The aims of this section are to:

  • reflect on how to use appropriate terms when speaking about languages;
  • reflect on the meaning and the emotional implications of linguistic terms like "first language", "second language" and "foreign language";
  • work with the project glossary.



Terms used in the media and everyday life

"In school we have to stop speaking about “our” children and “their” children. They are all our children ... and our future!" (Andreas Holzknecht, Projekt Nenzing, Austria)

When speaking about languages we use a specific terminology. Which terms are often/rarely used for plurilingual learners/speakers in the media, at school or in everyday situations?

Here are some examples:

  • learners, kids, young people
  • with a migrant background
  • with other first languages (referring to students’ family languages)
  • with a first language other than the language of schooling
  • foreigners
  • foreign learners
  • Turkish, Bosnian, Chinese, Russian learners/students/kids ...
  • migrants

Optional task: Search a newspaper for articles focusing on language, migration and education.

What do these terms express about whether they are a sign of an inclusive or exclusive approach towards plurilingual learners?


Dealing with linguistic terms

Could you easily explain some of the following linguistic terms to someone who doesn't know them? Which ones? Which of the terms in the list are synonyms?
Choose 4-5 terms you know well and give a short (oral or written) explanation:

  • plurilingualism
  • multilingualism
  • bilingual learner
  • language of schooling
  • language of instruction
  • second language
  • foreign language
  • first language
  • family language
  • academic language
  • mother tongue
  • literacy
  • CLIL

Compare your results with the definitions in the glossary.
Optional task: Choose the terms unknown to you and try to clarify their meaning, working with the glossary.

Alternative: Work with one text and analyse the linguistic terminology of the text, making a list of the most-used terms and develop your own glossary.  



Header image based on "Speech balloon" by Marc Wathieu (CC BY-NC 2.0).